Verdi’s Rigoletto

Vienna State Opera’s spectacular period production Rigoletto (stage Pantelis Dessylas) opens in the Duke’s palace. The banqueting hall where the Duke is entertaining his Court has rich oak panelling; the costumes, late Renaissance, appear authentic. So Verdi’s plot is dramatically more plausible than those modern stagings using the Court as a Mafia analogy.
The opening scene sets in motion the tragedy. The Duke (Piero Pretti) sings boasting, he finds pleasure today, he may be with another tomorrow. And without scruples, proceeds to woo the beautiful wife of Ceprano, his loyal retainer. Pretti, well named, has an irrestibly mellifluous tenor. We’re in no doubt about his lechery, but he’s charming.
Rigoletto role is that of court jester -a Shakesperean Fool- aiding and abetting his Duke, and mocking his courtiers. But he’s victim of his own intigues. Rigoletto’s tragedy is inherent within the characteristically Verdian relationship between over-possessive father and daughter seeking independence and love.
Leo Nucci’s Rigoleto, short, red-haired, appears slightly stooped, in fact a hunchback. And he’s actually wearing a harlequin outfit. Nucci is an operatic legend, celebrating his 500th stage appearance (4th April 2014) and 35 years performing at Vienna State Opera. His Rigoletto is a special treat for opera lovers. His distinguished baritone has enormous timbre, and he inhabits the role with subtle characterisation. Nucci holds the stage firing his caustically witty ripostes.
But the tragedy is sealed by Count Monterone’s outburst, demanding an explanation of the Duke who’s dishonoured his daughter. Rigoletto scorns the slighted father. Monterone curses both master and servant, but it’s Rigoletto who is haunted by the curse.
Act 2 , returning home, Rigoletto is accosted by Sparafucile, a professional assassin, (in whom Rigoletto sees a reflection of his own life.) Rigoletto’s aria -deeply troubled by the curse- is a highpoint of the opera. It reveals insights into his complex nature, the demon that drives him. To cellos and double basses- unsettled, disturbing- Nucci sings movingly, we are all alone. Rigoletto compares himself to Sparafucile: Sparafucile murders with his dagger, he uses words. He repeatedly sings , mantra-like, the old man put a curse on him . Now echoing Shakespeare’s anti-heros- Richard III , Iago- sings Nature has made him vile. How terrible it is to be crippled. But he may not weep. His young, handsome master orders him ‘Make me laugh’. If he, Rigoletto, is evil, it is because of him.
But here-(at home) -he becomes another man. Now upbeat orchestral strings: his daughter Gilda appears. His love for her humanises him. Gilda (Valentina Nafornita, a charming brunette ), complains she ony ever goes to church. – ‘Don’t remind a man of the happiness he’s lost’. His wife died. Only she is left to him, his mercy.-‘But what grief,’rejoins Gilda, ‘Calm yourself father.’-‘Only you are left to me.’ In a powerful interaction between Nucci and Nafornita, Rigoletto, Verdi’s obsessive father, ‘You are my family, country, universe.’ She’s been there three months, hasn’t seen the town. ‘Is the door locked?’ – ‘Always. Your precious flower will never be broken.’ . (Rigoletto instructs the housekeeper, Giovanna, she needs to be vigilant.)
Gilda confides in Giovanna (Juliette Mars), she’s been seeing a young man in church, (‘a student’). He’s generous, and refined. She doesn’t want a nobleman; she’d love him all the same.
‘Say those sweet words again!’ The Duke (disguised) has insinuated his way in. Pretti’s tenor is melting, melodious. ‘She is the sunshine of his soul’. Physically, Pretti is short and slight in relation to Nafornita, who’s seated on the garden bench, he standing over her. Their duet is well delivered. Their voices melt; she coos along. (The Duke is shameless, such is the power of rhetoric!)
In Gilda’s aria , Let his name be engraved on my heart, Nafornita is accompanied by a flute solo: jaunty rhythms introduce the well-known Caro nome, ‘Beloved name, may you always remind me of love…’ Nafornita’s display of coloratura is pleasing , but (standing left of stage by a well) she sounded a little shaky at one point. (She was unwell.) Elsewhere, Nafornita’s gorgeous stage presence and acting compensated.
We see the sumptuous palace interior; tables strewn with chess sets. Pretti sings angelically, he’s overcome by her virtue. And sententiously, she has been stolen from him. (The Duke’s courtiers have abducted the secreted-away Gilda, believing her Rigoletto’s mistress). With saintly indignation, he sees her tears as she calls to ‘her beloved Gualtier’ (his disguise). Terrifically sung by Pretti in a rich red velour house coat: the devil has all the best tunes.
Chorus- Vienna State Opera’s excel in Verdi- sing, ‘He has discovered a rare beauty’. In one of the great Verdian choruses- ‘They carried her out…blind-folded the girl.’ They actually sound quite charming. Verdi gives them a jaunty swagger, mocking their false bravado. The Duke sings of the poor girl: love summons him (Possente amor) . Chorus repeat (ironically), why is he so agitated.
Nucci’s scene, searching for Gilda (end Act 2) is harrowingly well played. They mock him, ‘Poor Rigoletto! What’s new, jester?’ They taunt him- Where can she be?-Verdi’s strings sardonic, almost laughing, jeering. Nucci, hunch-backed, is pitiful in his jester’s costume. In his aria -The girl you abducted last night is my daughter- their contempt changes to embarrassed silence. Rigoletto begs for pity; he can only weep. He pleads, have a heart. Then, a long sustained note, ‘You are fathers…’, accompanied by a superbly played cello solo. It was powerfully rendered. The applause for Nucci went on and on.
Gilda is brought in. Distraught, shamed. She’s been deceived, but confesses her love. Rigoletto sings, have no fear my angel. We are alone, speak. Gilda admits she saw the young man every sunday in church. She said nothing, but their eyes spoke. He came to her secretly yesterday, then left. But she ‘was filled with hope.’
Nucci sings poignantly, he hoped she would rise up as high as he, Rigoletto, has fallen. Weep my child to my heart! He swears to avenge the honour of fathers. Terrible vengeance is his one desire. The jester will strike him down. (The Duke sings, side of stage, he suspects me.) The scene ends tremendously, Verdi’s conflicting voices in ensemble.
Opening Act 3, an imposing rocky stone building (the Tavern). Maddalena (Nadia Krasteva) salaciously tempts the Duke. ‘All moral sense vanishes in the act of love.’ There is no doubt of his deception of Gilda. The Duke is incorrigible: ‘Come here and hear his heart beating.’ She is leading him on- dangling her legs- all thighs. Krasteva’s mezzo is excellent!
Now the Duke’s iconic aria La donna e mobile… ‘Woman is as wayward as a feather in the wind. Her pretty face is deceitful, whether weeping or sleeping.’ It’s insolent, bragadaccio, misogynistic; and accented by a soaring clarinet solo. Outside they’re overheard by Rigoletto and a despairing Gilda. He’s given Gilda time to get over him. Would she still love him if he were deceiving her? Besotted, she continues to love him. (Later Rigoletto negotiates with Sparafucile: Kill him and he’ll double the reward.) Again we hear the Duke’s swansong. Cruel misogyny! Pretti, in a grey swashbuckling outfit: Lamentable the man who puts his trust in a woman! But it is superbly sung, reaching thrilling high notes. Well applauded.
For Rigoletto the moment of vengeance is here at last. (A storm brewing, a sack is delivered.) ‘Take a look at me, the jester. Now he is at my feet!’ Then he hears the Duke’s refrain, as if mocking him, from the balcony, (La Donna e mobile), so beautifully sung by Pretti. Insidiously alluring, satanic?
So who’s in the sack instead? Impossible! She left for Verona. We hear Nafornita, her voice feeble. She deceived her father. She loved him too much; disguised to save the Duke, must die for him. Crushed, Rigoletto, declaims, ‘Oh terrible God!’ She has been struck down by revenge. Pathetically, if she goes, he’ll be left alone. The sheer abjection of human despair- man juggled by fate- is akin to the desperately pitiful King Lear picking up his smitten daughter Cordelia. In Verdi, fusing music with high drama, the scene cannot fail to move.
Nafornita performed in spite of illness: against the towering performance of Nucci, and Pretti’s virtuoso tenor. Jesus- Lopez Cobos, distinguished in Italian repertoire, encouraged Vienna State Opera orchestra to their Verdian best. And that glorious Chorus! P.R. 4.4.2014
Photos: Valentina Nafornita (Gilda) and Leo Nucci (Rigoletto); Valentina Nafornita and Piero Pretti (The Duke of Mantua); Featured image Piero Pretti (the Duke)
(c) Wiener Staatsoper/ Michael Poehn

Puccini’s La Boheme

The star attraction of Vienna State Opera’s La Boheme are the stage sets, especially Franco Zeffirelli’s bustling cafe scene on two levels. These were designed in the 1960s, but still stunning-like a Manet impressionist painting come to life. So it’s brave of Vienna not to have updated them with the latest minimalist concept transposed to the 21st century. Zeffirelli’s immaculately painted detail is true to Puccini’s obsession with realism, here social realism. Yes, this Paris burgeoning with artists is long past, but it endures through Puccini’s music.
La Boheme is autobiographical, recalling scenes and characters from Puccini’s life as an impoverished student in Milan, but, unembittered, burnished in a soft golden light. It remembers not the desperate poverty, hunger, but celebrates the camaraderie, close friendships, and youthful optimism. (Lang)
The garrett- peeling roof with two holes, the furniture threadbare, junk. Puccini gave detailed stage directions. Bearded Rodolfo (Ramon Vargas) in frock-coat, waistcoat, and bow tie, declaims, the fiery drama he’s writing will warm them: throws his manuscript, an ardent love scene, into the fire. Marcello (Adrian Eröd) is painting the Red Sea. The pawn shops are closed over Christmas. But they’re joined by musician Schaunard (Alessio Arduini) who got lucky and brings in some food. The script is brilliant, witty, plausible.
And Puccini’s score dispensing with overture, we’re swept away by the opening motif- Rodolfo’s -representing young, romantic, unbounded love. Agitated chords, anything but maudlin, suggest a bunch of young guys joking, determined to have fun. So, interrupted by the landlord demanding arrears, they rib Benoit (Marcus Pelz), in a brocade smoking jacket and embroidered fez, who boasts about ‘the pretty girls he has, now and then’, (the skinny ones are so morose, like his wife); and they eject him for besmirching their ‘virtue’.
They go out on the town. Rodolfo stays to write an article; and as they exit- ‘Be careful on the stairs in the dark’ he warns -as one of them falls.
That detail is crucial, (in Puccini’s dramatic authenticity), as a prelude to the knock on the door from Mimi: ‘I’m sorry, my candle’s gone out.’ She’s ‘so pale’, she excuses herself, a little out of health. She collapses in his armchair, her head to one side. ‘What shall I do now?’- ‘A little wine?’- ‘Just a little.’ Maija Kovaleska’s affecting soprano sounds feint, not feeble. She and Ramon Vargas truly enact their scene of (literally) fumbling introduction. ‘How silly of me! Where is my key?’ The candle goes out. They’re on their knees searching – Puccini’s orchestration playful. He holds her hand- How cold your hand is (Che gelida manina!) – and helps her up. Luckily the moon is shining. Vargas, as if blocking the door, tells her about himself. Chi son!- Sono un poeta…E come vivo?- vivo. ‘And how do I live? I live.’ In dreams he’s a millionaire. Occasionally all his riches are stolen by two beautiful eyes. In this great aria, Vargas, a fine tenor, is modest, sincere: he eschews the vituoso’s swagger.
And she? (Kovalevska) Mi chiamano Mimi. La storia mia e breve. ‘People call me Mimi.’ She embroiders flowers. Artlessly sung by Kovalevska with such fresh charm; her high notes are a quite natural progression of her joy. She sings she doesn’t know about poetry; seldom goes to church, but prays to God; lives alone in her little room. ‘But when the sun rises… the first kiss of Spring is mine’. Vargas is sitting in his armchair, staring benignly. She, Kovalevska, a stunning brunette, is wearing a simple long gown, with prim, white collar.
Act 2, a Paris Christmas market, bustling stalls front of stage, children everywhere: behind, and above, the silhouetted facades of a long shopping boulevard. The stalls are cleared away to reveal Cafe Momus, hanging lamps, oak panels, the lot. Rodolfo and Mimi are centre stage. Rodolfo has bought Mimi the bonnett she’s always wanted.
Musetta, determined to make Marcello jealous, appears with her rich, older man. Ildiko Raimondi, blonde, wearing a scarlet satin cloak, steals the show. Raimondi’s Musetta, wild and flamboyant, is the very opposite of Kovalevska’s delicate Mimi. And Musetta, constantly feuding with Marcello, their stormy relationship is a foil to Mimi/Rodolfo’s.
Musetta has a tantrum, throws a tray, topples the table. How can he be jealous of ‘this old woman'(Alcindor)? Casting aside her red cloak, Raimondi’s stunning black, red-trimmed extravaganza is out of the Follie Bergere; or Toulouse -Lautrec poster. Raimondi’s aria Quando me’n vo soletta per la via is a tour-de-force. ‘People turn to look at me: they all admire my beauty.’ Turning to Marcello who’s avoiding her,’You hide your pain , but it will torture you to death.’ Raimondi’s high notes are to bewonder. She emits a shrill scream- the pain in her foot! – showing off her white petticoats for the bumbling, helpless Alcindor (Pelz). ‘The bill so soon?’
A troop of soldiers, a brass band, led by a drum major, pull the crowds on the overhead stage. The gentleman will pay. They merge with the crowds of Zeffirelli’s spectacular, cinematic set.
By contrast, Act 3’s snow -covered stage: left, a customs barrier,and in Puccini’s realism, street sweepers-‘we’re freezing’ -demand they open up. Milk maids pass through with butter, cheese, eggs. But Mimi’s basket is empty. Kovelevska- now with a bonnett, but no gloves- asks for the tavern with the artist, seeks Marcello’s help. She sings, Rodolfo loved her, but -she thinks-he’s consumed by jealousy. (‘One step, one word, and he becomes suspicious.’) Kovalevska seemed a little underpowered. The applause was restrained. I found her endearing.
Baritone Adrian Eröd is very good as Marcello, here in duet with Rodolfo. Vargas sings powerfully, ‘I thought my heart was dead. She brought it to life.’ Marcello retorts, ‘Love without laughter is tedium,’ and – almost jostling Vargas- complains, ‘Musetta is a flirt, and makes eyes at everyone.’ And plaintively, ‘I try in vain to conceal my pain.’
Rodolfo knows Mimi is terribly ill, weakening every day. (His room is damp and cold.) Vargas, a golden tenor, sings with warmth and heart-rending honesty. Mimi is a flower faded by poverty; love alone cannot restore her health.
Mimi revealed by her coughing, has overheard her death sentence: she’s going back to her embroidery. In their duet Vargas and Kovalvska were blistering. Being alone in winter is intolerable; Rodolfo’s love will mitigate her suffering. By contrast, right of stage, Musetta and Marcello , the tempestuous lovers, ever-arguing. ‘You’re behaving like a husband,’ Musetta throwing her cloak at him. Meanwhile Mimi and Rodolfo pledge ‘I am yours forever. We’ll part when Spring comes. If only winter would never end…’
In Act 4, Puccini displays his mastery of dramatic timing. Rodolfo and Marcello are bemoaning their absent lovers. Schaunard, lucky again, enters with food. But their reverie is disturbed by a distraught Musetta -Raimondi now in sobre maroon- accompanied by a pale Mimi, who can barely stand. Mimi is terminally ill. Lying on Rodolfo’s bed, she sings, new life surges in her. ‘Do they have wine, coffee?’ Such poverty ! She’ll be dead in half an hour, one comments.
Their poverty is detailed, but never sentimentalised, endured in good humour. ‘I’m so cold. If only I had a muff. They’re all starring at me,’ as she gratefully recognises her friends. Musetta offers to sell her earings to bring a doctor. And the philosopher Colline (bass Jongmin Park) sings (impressively) an elegy to the old coat he must part with.
As their Act 1 love theme is recapitulated, she asks have they gone. She only pretended to sleep so she could be alone with him. ‘You are my love and my entire life, Vargas sings, she’s still as beautiful as the dawn. She corrects him, you mean the sunset. They reminisce, Vargas and Kovlavevska powerfully enacting their scene. She sings her refrain, They call me Mimi’. She knows he’d found the key ‘very quickly’; in the dark, she couldn’t see him blush.
She looks radiant, but lies back to cough. The muff now on, her hands will never be cold again . (Money squandered!) ‘Mimi!’ cries out Vargas, his grief inconsolable.
Those demanding vocal fireworks might find the two leads underpowered. For me, the experience was as moving as I’ve heard. Vienna State Opera orchestra (and Chorus) under Mikko Franck’s conducting, played Puccini’s popular but subtle masterpiece with fresh ardour. And Zeffirelli’s stages, like Hollywood film sets, are to marvel. P.R. 26.03.2014
Photos: Maija Kovalevska (Mimi); Featured image Jongmine Park (Colline), Adrian Eroed (Marcello), Alessio Arduini (Schaumard)
(c) Wiener Staatsoper/ Michel Poehn
Reference to Oliver Lang Puccini und die Boheme (Wiener Staatsoper programme notes)

Berg’s Wozzeck

Late March in a stormy, cold Vienna, Spring has been postponed. Doom and gloom also on the stage of Vienna State Opera’s Berg’s Wozzeck. Alban Berg’s opera is based on George Buchner’s stage pieces concerning the (1821) criminal case of a barber who stabbed his woman to death. Wozzeck, a low-ranking soldier is forced to work privately for his captain , and volunteers for his doctor’s experiments, so he can support Marie and her child by him.
But Berg’s modernist opera -the first complete ‘atonal’ opera- is a work for our time, not just early 20th century, but recognisable now. Berg was moved by this man, ‘maltreated, spurned by the world, plagued by visions, who murders his lover, and drowns himself’. Berg’s opera – modernist-like Schnittke’s plays – tells the story through episodes, over 3 Acts , each five scenes. Berg’s music heightens the emotional atmosphere in these individual scenes, incorporating old and new musical forms. And (for 1925) its social realism radically depicts scenes from everyday life. An indictment of social injustice, Wozzeck ‘widened the notion of opera still living off stylised costumes and standardised characters.'(Schoenberg)
The Captain (Herbert Percoraro), pampered in the barber’s chair, waffles away with patronising advice. Wozzeck- so the Captain smothered in lather- ‘always looks so frantic’. A decent man with a clear conscience does everything …with control. Herbert Percoraro, a lyrical, high -pitched tenor, emits a manic laugh- against Mathias Goerne’s deep bass. Ja wohl, herr Hauptmann, Wozzeck repeatedly nods. Mathias Goerne has played the role of Wozzeck so often he now embodies the character. Physically, Goerne looks demonic; his large, staring eyes have a haunted look.
The Captain taunts him, Wozzeck has a child , unblessed by the Church: Wozzeck is a good man but has no morals (ein guter Mennsch, aber er hat kein Moral.) Wozzeck rebuts him ‘suffer the little children to come unto me.’ The law of God, poor people don’t see it. Morals! We are poor people; try practising your morals with no money. Goerne, standing glowering over the Captain waves his razor menacingly. Pecora rejoins, he’s a good man, but he thinks too much – often repeated of Wozzeck (the lower classes’ thinking could lead to revolution.)
This brooding violence re-emerges in the following hunting scene. Wozzeck tells Andres the place is ‘haunted’: the story -almost comical – how one evening a head came rolling down, someone thinking it a hedgehog.
Marie (Scene 3) watching a military band from her window, sees the Drum Major. He glances after her: soldiers are handsome fellows. ‘Come boy, you’re just a whore’s son,’ she sings. She’s a pretty maid, but she has no husband. As Marie, Evelyn Herlitzius is a ravishingly expressive soprano.
Their home resembles a shack in a southern U.S. movie – Depression era. Wozzeck looks in through the window – a striking contrast to the Drum Major. Wozzeck sings of his visions, ‘There was shape in the sky, all glowing. It came after him!’ (She goes to look after her son.) Herlitzius, tremendously powerful, rails, ‘This man’s obsessed, he didn’t even look at his child.’ All this thinking is driving him mad. And, desperately, ‘God , what it is to be poor.’ She can’t bear it any more. She’s frightened.
Wozzeck’s other way of earning money: the Doctor (Wolfgang Bankl). Doesn’t he give him three groschens a day! Has he eaten his beans? See, you’re philosophising again. (‘You see in nature…) Wozzeck is on all fours, like a dog. Bankl’s white-jacketed doctor is a chilling forerunner to a Nazi War Camp doctor. Wozzeck mistakes the Doctor’s interest in his visions for human sympathy. But Bankl triumphantly declares,’You’ve got a perfect mania- a classic case. Just keep being good.’ With his hypothesis, he’ll be famous.
In the scene between the The Drum Major and Marie, the Major (Herbert Lippert) appears at Marie’s s door. She mocks his swagger. He forces himself on her. She fights him off- like a wild animal. Then, unable to resist him, they copulate.
Opening Act 2 , Marie is with her boy. Again the expressionistic painted stage set, grey with cloudy abtract shapes in black; or are they dirt-engrained walls? Marie tries to hide the earing ‘she found’. Wozzeck interrogates her- ‘it must be gold?’- but relents. Plaintively Goerne sings , ‘Nothing but drudgery under the sun. We even sweat as we sleep.’ But he offers his pay and money he’s earned on the side. She sings, I’m not a good person. What a world! She could kill herself. Herlitzius, overwrought, affecting, is sensational.
The Doctor and Captain’s meeting in the street is comical. The strutting Captain (Bankl) in a top hat looms over the Captain (Percoraro), who, breathless, is trying to catch him up. ‘Permit me to save one life! Here’s you, bloated, fat, subject to aploplexy…’
Wozzeck, what’s your hurry. You charge through life like an open razor!‘ They mock him over his wife’s affair with the Drum Major. (The Captain admits he was once in love too.) But Goerne pleads with harrowing pathos, she’s all in the world he’s got. ‘God in heaven, it almost makes you want to hang yourself.’ To the Doctor,’He’s a rare specimen, this Wozzeck.’
Wozzeck confronts Marie, hints at her affair: her red lips have no blisters. ‘You were with him!’ -‘What if I was?’-‘You bitch!’ He’s about to strike her, but Goerne, again philosophical, sings movingly on the human condition, ‘Man is an abyss. It makes you dizzy looking all the way down.’
Wozzeck is outside a cheap tavern, brandy-soaked. It’s effectively staged, soldiers dancing with local women, huddled together on a cramped raised platform. Berg’s music seems to subvert the waltzing rhythms. He walks in, as Marie and the Drum Major appear and openly flirt, kissing passionately. The dance ends, Wozzeck’s about to go over. Goerne sings he’s comfortable here; but death would be as comfortable. Earthly things are in vain…Everything rots away; then, hiccupping, ‘his soul stinks’ . A fool cavorts: why is the world sad.
In the soldiers’ barracks, there are lines of men’s bodies either side of the stage. Wozzeck can’t sleep, sees flashes, hears the refrain ‘Oh, God, lead us not into temptation.’ The Drum Major bursts in, picks a fight with Wozzeck and brutally strikes him. He’s left bleeding and brooding.
Opening Act 3 Marie is sitting in her room , desperately seeking consolation in her bible, identifying with Mary Magdalene seeking forgiveness. Then- the stage set excellent -an expanse of flint grey water and skies. Marie and Wozzeck are walking by the ‘pond’. Wozzeck sings enigmatically,’you won’t need it in the morning. ‘
There’s a horrid moment as Herlitzius jerks- like receiving an electric shock- and topples. Goerne sings of how red the moon is… He has cut her throat. No one else can have her. Tot! A tremendous wailing sound emanates from the orchestra; a long sustained note, hellish drums, an ominous knocking.
We see Wozzeck sitting at the entrance to a tavern, a hole cut out of the expressionistically painted wall. Wozzeck, drunk, clings to a woman, with his bloodied arm. (No shoes, she can go barefoot into hell.) They all come out, repelled by the blood on his hands.
Wozzeck returns to the pond. ‘Alles still..still und tot.’ Wading in, he sings incoherently, Marie, what is that red band around your neck? But the red moon will betray him. He can’t find the knife; imagines himself all bloody, as if washing himself with blood. (The Doctor and Captain, passing, think they can hear someone drown.)
The final scene shows children playing. Does the boy know about Marie:’Your mother is dead, out there by the pond.’ The boy is seen fading into the expanse of blue cloud: perhaps the outsider, philosophising.
Wozzeck is the victim of a modern, ‘capitalist’ society- poor, down-trodden, exploited; and psychotic, driven mad. If Wozzeck has to be experienced, this current production could hardly be bettered. Directed by Adolph Dresen, Herbert Kapplmueller’s staging, evocative, atmospheric, is not distracting. The cast distinguished, Berg’s orchestration is endlessly fascinating, and to hear it performed by Vienna State Opera orchestra (conducted by specialist Dennis Russell Davies), a privilige. P.R. 23.3.2014
Photos: Featured image Evelyn Herlitzius (Marie); Mathias Goerne (Wozzeck); Evelyn Herlitzius (Marie) and Monika Bohinec (Margret); Mathias Goerne (Wozzeck) and Evelyn Herlitzius (Marie)
(c) Wiener Staatsoper/ Michael Pӧhn

Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro

Le Nozze di Figaro , like any great work of art, defies any single interpretation. Mozart and librettist Da Ponte’s opera, premiered in 1786, was initially censored by Vienna’s Court as socially subversive: Count Almaviva, a womaniser, and serial seducer of his servants has his come-uppance plotted by his valet, his wife, and his household. Set around the 1780s in Almaviva’s castle, the Count, supposedly an advocate of ‘Enlightenment’, waives his seigneural right of primae noctis. Except for Susanna, the Countess’s maid, the intended bride of Figaro. The Count, with designs on Susanna, offers Susanna and Figaro a room in the seigneural wing, and contrives to postpone the wedding. The ensuing intrigues, the Count besieged in his own Castle, could be an allegory for the Revolution to sweep Europe.
But the opera is ‘never only one thing’. The intrigues and counterplotting are about love, the characters are in a war of the sexes; Mozart and Da Ponte’s concern is with fidelity, and the tragi-comic consequences of misplaced trust and adultery. So the Countess’s arias are heartrending, as Act 2, ‘what happened to the those moments of joy; where are all those promises that passed his dying lips.’ Whereas the men are, to us, mysoginists. Figaro, Act 4, seeing his Susanna (the Countess disguised) engaging with the Count, decries ‘open your eyes…see women as they are.’ The closure celebrates the convention of marriage, but is problematical. The Count begs the Countess’s forgiveness; she does so because ‘she is more understanding.’
I was over-critical of Jean-Lous Martinoty’s production, then ‘new’ in 2012. Those cardboard cut-outs and trompe l’oeuil screens -a collage of cultural references- are problematic; but not distracting. This production is outstanding, a near ideal cast. Luca Pisaroni’s Figaro is a stalwart baritone, but at first lacking flexibility, not quite a figure of fun. His Act 1 aria challenges his master, ‘If Almaviva wants to play tricks scheming for Susanna, then he’ll outsmart him.’ Maybe Pisaroni’s too straight, not mischevious enough? Figaro, in a mustard frock coat, wants to know everything from Susanna (Anna Hartig): ‘Do you think he gives us a dowry for nothing…The count abolished his seigneural right- now he revokes it.’
The surprise was Simon Keenlyside’s Almaviva, who first appears looking quite raunchy. His hair is swept back in a tail, his billowing white shirt open, his gold breeches tucked into knee-length boots. Not the stuffed -shirt you’d expect fot a Count. And after so many dramatic Verdian roles, baritone Keenlyside shows a natural flair for comedy. Almaviva is forever being outwitted by his servants, especially his page Cherubino. So in Act 1, Almaviva enters -Cherubino hidden behind an armchair – while the Count ardently woos Susanna. Almaviva hides, hearing music master Basilio; but emerges furious at the revelation of Cherubino’s passion for the Countess. Almaviva uncovers the elusive Cherubino under a blanket, Cherubino ‘at it again’. But Almaviva having expelled Cherubino, realises his page overheard his play for Susanna. Finally Figaro enters with a group of peasants to ask for the wedding date, singing ‘We scatter flowers before our noble lord for abandoning his seugeurial rights’. The Chorus are continually mocking their Seigneur.
Olga Bezsmertina sings the Countess. In her aria (opening Act 2) Porgi, amor, qualche ristore, ‘Oh, give me consolation, my beloved back or let me die’, sings to an interweaving clarinet solo. Dressed in a lilac gown, kneeling on silk cushions, her auburn hair coiffured, Bezsmertina’s glorious soprano is refined, cultivated, high range not strained.
In Figaro’s intrigue- Pisaroni better, more the schemer- Susanna will agree to meet the Count in the garden: but it’s actually Cherubino in Susanna’s gown, so the Countess can expose her husband. In Cherubino’s aria ‘You ladies who know what love is, tell me if I have it in my heart’, (Voi, che sapete che cosa e amor), the irony is that Cherubino is sung by a woman (Rachel Frenkel) cross-dressed . ‘I freeze, I burn, and then I freeze again.’ The sentiment is at the heart of the opera’s engagement with the pain and pleasure of love. ‘Without wishing I tremble, I find no peace.’ In this iconic aria, Frenkel is bland, passionless, routine, although it’s well sung. It’s superficially beautiful, so Susanna comments, ‘Bravo, che bella voce!’ I didn’t know he could sing so well.’ (More dramatic irony.) ‘What to do with his hair: fetch one of my bonnets’. Cherubino is now dressed as a cute-looking maid. Mozart’s is opera buffa after all.
Almaviva knocks furiously (the frightened page locked in a closet). Wow! Keenlyside’s Almaviva, sleeked- black hair, in a louche scarlet frock coat, rouched white lace, black boots- a touch of Dracula. Keenlyside is excellent at pointing up the comedy, his rage and petulance rather ridiculous. He’s a figure of lust, denied, defied!
Keenlyside and Bezsmertina are first class in their fiery duet. ‘I’d go through hell for her,’ sings the the Count ironically. (Susanna is hidden behind an easel.) Keenlyside stamps his feet with rage, ‘Come out you scoundrel.’ By which time Cherubino has escaped, now dressed as a young cavalier. With cruel irony, Almaviva, the philanderer, tells the Countess to get out of his sight,’You disgrace me.’
The closet empty -Susanna emerges sweet- and- innocent -Almaviva has to apologise. The Countess reproaches him ,’You’re lying. I’m the woman who deceives you- Rosina- cruel man !’ (She’s Rosina, once the ward of Doctor Bartolo, whom Figaro abducted for Almaviva.) Now Countess, she sings passionately ‘Who would believe in a woman’s fury!’ She counters, my heart will try to understand you. Mozart/Da Ponte- within the apparent farce- are offering a very modern psychological realism of a marriage on the rocks.
The quartet comprises the servants Figaro and Susanna in mustard and grey, the Royals in red and lilac. As in theatre, it will end happily with a wedding, sing the Chorus ironically.
In Almaviva’s (Act 3) assignation with Susanna, she entices him into the garden. ‘Forgive me if I lie, but such is the nature of love.’ Keenlyside’s Almaviva is a figure of fun; the Count powerless, his Castle out of control. In his powerful aria, he realises he’s caught in a trap. But is he supposed to suffer and see his servant happy after she’s rejected his advances? ‘I’ll leave you no place; you were not born to torment me.’ There were cheers for Keenlyside, deservedly applauded.
‘Why does the memory of happiness linger on’, an oboe laces the Countess’s plaintive aria. ‘Ah, if I could hope to change his ungrateful heart.’ Bezsmertina, in a pink white dress, trimmed in gold, was superlative.
‘Soft Zepphyr will await the evening..’ The Countess conspires to win back her husband. Susanna agrees to the Count’s rendezvous. But Susanna appears dressed as the Countess, while the Count seduces his own wife dressed as Susanna. It’s comedy, but cruel and cynical; and for the Countess, desperate. So the Chorus’ (end Act 3) refrain ‘Amanti constanti…Andante, amici’, Faithful lovers sing the Lord’s praises, has added resonnance.
Figaro, unaware of the switch, sees Almaviva apparently with Susanna . His bitterly mysoginistic aria, Tutti e disposto ‘Allow us to suffer sirens…’ sung feistily by Pisaroni, but not at all comic. It accords with the dark undercurrent to this opera buffa.
Reunited with Figaro, Anita Hartig in Susanna’s aria is a high point. ‘Deh, vieni, non tardar’ . At last the moment…Oh, wonderful joy. Hartig is powerful, moving, ‘Come my beloved to my hiding place; she will place a wreath of roses on his brow. (The rose-printed screen is very effective.)
Their aristocratic counterparts are more problematic. In the charade the Count gropes at the disguised- as- Susanna Countess- who plays along with her husband’s fantasies. Keenlyside and Beszmertina enact the scene with spontaneous naturalness. She will trap the villain; he thinks her a cunning vixen’s heart. (She’s absolutely furious.) He, ‘Let us not lose any time’, Almaviva aroused with adulterous passion. But with her disguise revealed, she sits astride him: he’s trapped . On his knees he craves her forgiveness. She, ‘more understanding’, will have him back, knowing perhaps he’ll relapse.
Only love can end this day of mad intrigue, sing the Chorus, Hasten the fesivities, corriera tutti a festeggia. The ensemble’s ‘Then let us all be happy’ is ambivalent. Rather the convention of marriage, as closure, patches up lovers’ jealousies, matrimonial discord: the feel -good factor.
Keenlyside, Bezsmertina and Hartig especially underpin an outstanding production, with sympathetic playing from Vienna State Opera Orchestra and Chorus under Jeremie Rhorer. P.R. 9.1.2014
Photos: Rachel Frenkel (Cherubino) and Anita Hartig (Susanna); Simon Keenlyside (Almaviva); Olga Bezsmertina (Countess Almaviva)
(c) Wiener Staatsoper/ Michael Pöhn

Johann Strauss A Night in Venice (Eine Nacht in Venedig)

Johann Strauss’s music, was never more popular, with the New Years Day waltzes beamed worldwide. But are the Operettas rather outdated? Not this gleaming new Vienna Volksoper production of A Night in Venice (Eine Nacht in Venedig) . Strauss’s score is gloriously tuneful, its arias evergreen; and, libretto by Die Fledermaus’s F. Zell and Richard Genee, it still works as great theatre. (A packed house responded to the witty dialogue with spontaneous laughter.) And there’s nothing second rate about this cast, nor the very smooth sound of Vienna’s Volksoper orchestra.
The preposterous plot of lovers’ intrigues- further complicated in a Venice carnival- centers on the visit of the Duke of Urbino, a notorious womaniser- aided by his personal barber (Figaro?) Caramello, seeking Barbara, the frisky wife of elderly senator Delacqua. To thwart jealous Delaqua, Annina -actually Caramello’s lover- takes her mistress Barbara’s place. And the servants- Ciboletta, the Senator’s cook, in love with Pappacoda- manipulate their masters. But whereas in Die Fledermaus the champagne is to blame, in A Night in Venice, it’s the carnival. Alle maskiert, Alle maskiert, wo Spass, wo Tollheit und lust regiert.‘ The masks and disguises of carnival are opportunity and excuse for fun, wildness and desire.
It opens with a pageant around Pappacoda’s traditional (Venetian) macaroni stall- quaint outfits with pointed hats. Behind, backstage, there are cut-out floating waves on wires, and- in Hinrich Horstkotte’s clever design – there’s an ingenious network of canals across the stage. Annina (soprano Mara Mastalir), posing as her mistress Barbara, appears in a pink gown singing magically of frutti die mare (she’s a fisherman’s daughter.) Barbara, on a jaunt, Manuela Leonhartsberger, appears only briefly. Ciboletta the cook (Johanna Arrouas), nattering away, is a fine-voiced soprano (Volksoper ensemble). Caramello, the Duke’s assistant, tenor Jorg Schneider, is a big boy. The operetta’s comic lead sings the famous Komm in die Gondel (end Act 1) and the Laguna Waltz (Act 3). Caramello’s ‘quite a fellow’- bouffon hair, eccentric moustache, culottes, and orange boots- sings he’ll do anything to get Annina back in his arms. Her song of loyalty doesn’t ring true. The quartet of disguised pairs, Ciboletta/Papacoda and Annina/Caramello, introduce the Alle maskiert number: (fun, folly, and …sex!)
The Duke of Urbino introduces himself. ‘My greetings to the fine city of Venice. Nature made you a place for love.’ Vincent Schirrmacher’s entrance lifts the production to a higher level. His is a very impressive tenor, authorative, in the traditional (Viennese) operetta style. He’s got star quality. Schirrmacher’s dressed in a purple glitter outfit, Venetian headpiece, white cravatte. Good looking, perhaps oriental -it doesn’t matter, he’s got charisma, and such a voice. He’s never seen Barbara unmasked, so he’s taken in by the disguised Annina. ‘The moon has filed a suit before the Court’, he wafts. The costumes are ingeniously designed so we can see behind the masks.
The Chorus, Volksoper’s, crucial in the scheme, have some of the plum numbers. ‘For who knows what tomorrow will bring…’ extends into ‘Man is pre-occupied with three things: Love , wine and coffee.’ Si nette tutto in sacce. Bring it on.
The interior of the Duke’s palace looks surprisingly opulent -Volksoper is Vienna ‘s second opera house, after all. The Duke, Schirrmacher, is dressed in very glamorous gold orienatal robes. Annina, Mara Mastalir, the other star of the show, sings she will do what it takes to lure her man. Mastalir’s soprano is beguiling, with outstanding technique. The Duke, pursuing her- the disguised Annina – around the stage, is tantalised. But why so cruel, Barbara? She sings, don’t get so close : I spoke (only) of a rendez-vous…The music loosens all restraints, Schirrmacher croons.
The second Act staging -given Volksoper’s relatively modest resources – is remarkable. A screen descends. There is a sensational framing of the cast as if on a boat. It’s like a floating box, around them and behind, Venice waterways, projected onto the opening white screen. Very effective.
Who doesn’t know of the doves of Saint Marco, sing the Chorus. They set an example for any couple. In the ensemble, some cast are waving tall rods which appear like doves fluttering. Hilariously camp.
The highlight again is Schirrmacher’s aria, ‘Ah , how lovely to gaze at the lovely ladies…As rash as the ebbing tide, their flights of fancy; no one knows what they’re thinking.’ Lovely ladies, Schirmacher’s gorgeous tenor rises.
In Act 3 the ridiculous senator Delacqua is looking for his wife Barbara everywhere. There’s a lot of dialogue in operetta, interspersed between the musical numbers. And thus ‘operetta’, transported to America, was a forerunner to the musical, especially from the 1930s the Hollywood musical. But this dialogue is German -although there are English subtitles- and it’s very witty. Agricola, asks Delacqua is that a man? ‘No but she wears the trousers,’ explains Ciboletta, his cook . ‘Now I’m confused!’ The old senator (Hubsch) wanders in a daze, repeating ‘I’m looking for a woman, I’m looking for Barbara.’ He’s told, your wife will turn up on Ash Wednesday, when the disguises are discarded. So the show closes with the repeated refrain, ‘It’s carnival all around. Whatever bores us will be ridiculed.’ It’s an extravagant looking set, and the carnival costumes are respendently colourful, intricate, top drawer.
This new Vienna Volksoper revival of Strauss’s A Night in Venice must be recommended. The production is traditional, but so is carnival. The cast were polished, the leads Schirrmacher and Mastalir outstanding. Volksoper chorus were exemplary, and the Volksoper orchestra refined, but under Lorenz C. Aichner, not quite their best (as under Volksoper’s director Albert Eshwe.) P.R. 4.1.2014
Photos: Mara Mastalir (Annina) and Vincent Schirrmacher (Duke of Urbino) ;
Featured image Group shot ensemble
(c) Barbara Palffy / Volksoper Wien

Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola)

Rossini’s La Cenerentola is a brilliant reworking of the fairy tale; and much more. The plot is like untying a knot: the more you unravel it, the more it tightens. Baron Don Magnifico lives with his two daughters Clorinda and Tisbe, their half-sister Angelina in the Cinderella role of household slave (her inheritance squandered by the Baron.) The moral parable unfolds when a beggar, turned away by the sisters, is offered hospitality by Angelina. Soldiers bring an invitation for Prince Ramiro’s ball. The twist is that Don Ramiro (Dmitry Korchak) arrives disguised as his valet, Dandini. But Dandini (Nicholas Borchev) plays the part of the prince, to suss out the marriage candidates, and dupe the flirtatious sisters.
The genius of Vienna State Opera’s (Sven -Eric Bechtolf) production is the updating to a (northern) Italian setting, moving between a designer villa and a car showroom. Thus the twin pillars of Italian consumerism , design (the sisters are fashion addicts), and sports cars, represent the false values of status against the humanity of Angelina.
Don Magnifico’s is a state of the art (Milanese) villa . Elegant high ceilings, cream panels, Japanese paintings, blonde parquet floors, suspended lighting. It could also be a haute couture showroom . The ‘wicked’ sisters, Sylvia Schwartz and Juliette Mars, cavorting in white slips are not at all ugly. ‘Once there was a king who chose a kind-hearted bride’ (Una volta c’era un re), Angelina sings. The two nasties are pulling at Angelina, stuck in- between, timidly holding a coat hanger.
The male cast behind them are passing along the line endless designer dresses, while the spoilt sisters are deciding what to wear. It’s all hysterically funny- a send up of pret-a-porter. By contrast the deep voiced Don Magnifico (Paulo Rumetz) slouched in a chair – dreaming of a marriage dowry- wears a vest, khaki trousers and braces: very plebeian.
‘The great prince is coming to choose a bride.’ Dmitry Korchak, the Prince, is dressed as his valet Dandini, in a chic navy uniform , more airline pilot than chauffeur. ‘The wise Alidoro (the disguised beggar) assured him he’d find a bride here. What a voice! Korchak’s light, supple tenor, effortlessly floating colaratura, is a highlight. He sings ‘There’s a sweet look in her eyes he can’t figure out.’ Angelina (Vivica Genaux) is picking up and sorting her sisters’ dresses. ‘There’s a certain grace, a charm’ (Un soave non so che). In their duet, Angelina and disguised Prince Ramiro are separated by the open doors of a wardrobe. He’s looking for the Baron’s daughter. But who are you? ‘I don’t really know’ : can’t he see how confused she is? Genaux is a refined mezzo-soprano, a leading interpreter of baroque and belcanto. Her awkwardness is charming. She begs forgiveness for her manner. He’s leaving her heart to her. But he can’t understand why such a charming girl is dressed so humbly?
Meanwhile, Dandini, disguised as Prince Ramiro, is received by Magnifico. Nikolay Borchev a velvet deep baritone, is dressed in a brilliant white suit. The whole household lines up, in a musical serenade, to persuade Don Ramiro to make up his mind and choose his bride . Borchev the ‘Prince’ has a microphone in his hand, like a pop star. He has both daughters on either side. He sings, in the masquerade, he has to take a bride or he’ll be disinherited. Borchev, sitting on a rear- facing white chair- matching his white suit- relishes his power: he can see the turmoil written in their faces.
Angelina begs her stepfather to take her to the ball – just one dance!- but Magnifico dimisses her as a silly servant girl; and waving his cane, orders her back to dust her room . The ‘beggar’ Alidoro, Don Ramiro’s philosopher- is impressively sung by baritone Ildebrando D’Arcangelo. ‘Everything is about to change’ (La del ciel). She, Angelina, shall have everyone at her feet, conquer every heart. A bolt of lightning will change her destiny.
Scene change, a sensation! It’s a car showroom, with a real, baby-blue, classic Italian car in view, right of stage. On the overhead balcony – beneath opaque glass panels- Borchev’s ‘Prince’ is smooching with, trying out, the two sisters in turn. (Balcony reverts to a sales office.) Then a brilliant white convertible is wheeled in centre stage! In the driving seat Baron Magnifico. So Rossini’s wine cellars have been updated to motor sales. Secretly confiding in his ‘valet’ (Romero), Borchev- disguised as Prince-
describes the sisters as vain and capricious. But they’ll continue with their comedy. Anyone who wants to marry them can! Meanwhile the two sisters in their snazzy dresses are fumbling around blind-folded in Dandini’s game.
The iconic moment. A mysterious lady arrives at the Ball, her face veiled; beautiful, but who can she be? Vivica Genaux is dressed in the ultimate party frock -a Prada special?- ultramarine taffeta, fluted skirt, pinched midriff; white headscarf, and wearing designer shades. Korchak, erstwhile ‘valet’, sings the sound of her voice is familiar to him. She kindles the flame of hope. Korchak, wow! She reveals herself for just a moment. To gasps! The close of Act 1 is a rousing crescendo, Vienna State Opera orchestra sounding authentically Italian (conductor Michael Guttler), Chorus and ensemble whipped up to a frenzy to die for!
Again, opening Act 2, the car ‘showroom’ – the blue car still in place- now has long white banquetting tables. The Baron, in his aria, bombarded with letters and petitions, has to bolt the door. He’s going bankrupt; and he’s worried by the competition for the Prince who looks uncannily like his (disinherited) step-daughter Angelina. She’s proposed to by the assumed Prince -but she’s in love with another: his valet. The actual Ramiro (Korchak) sings his heart is filled with a mysterious longing. ‘Dandini, tell these silly women to leave the Palace.’ Yes! He Romero will find her again. Oh, treasured pledge: identified by her bracelet, she’ll be his (si ritrovaria, io gioro). Astounding tenor, this Kurchak!
Meanwhile, in the comedy, Dandini reveals his secret to the Baron: he doesn’t give banquets, usually mixes with the servants. It’s as in a fairy tale. Now, he must return to his real job as Dandini. He makes the beds, brushes his clothes, shaves the Prince. (In effect, he’s a male Cinderella.) Borchev’s Dandini, appropriately in black, polka-dot shirt and white tie, his aria excellently sung.
Revert to the Baron’s State Room (rather designer villa) for Angelina’s aria, ‘There once was a king… in the end came innocence.’ Thunder and lightning ; snow seen throough the windows. The Prince’s carriage overturned- perhaps symbolising the subversion in the perceived social order. ‘Despicable people! You try in vain to insult the girl I adore,’ But thanks to her bracelet, Ramiro identifies Angelina, who’s still being kept as a maid (siete voi). ‘What a sudden transformation. Come let love guide us.’
Longer than average scene change, before the finale back in the car showroom . And what a finale! ‘Pride crumbles, good prevails’, Angelina sings, ‘my revenge will be to forgive them.’ She recognises a power greater than herself. Vivica Genaux is in a brilliant white gown, wearing a tiara and crown. He Romero, the actual prince, Korchak now in his own white suit. Both sport glamorous shades.
‘Born into sorrow, she bore it all. But her face is transformed by a gentle breeze, the flower of youth.’ Now Genaux, earlier subdued, astounds us with breathtaking coloratura. Korchak, in white, is sitting in that awesome vintage Italian convertible: ‘Little by little, everything changes. Her days of suffering are but a dream.’ (Beneath the pantomine frenzy , there’s a moving parable.) Oh, my goodness, the white car drives off! Angelina is standing on the front seat waving. Truly a fairy tale ending.
Rossini’s orchestration is crucial in sustaining the comic momentum, springy rhythms tautening for the comic climaxes. Vienna State Opera orchestra under Guttler achieved a light, crisp orchestral sound, articulated wind playing. The familiar, but glorious, Rossini cresendos gather pace like a well-oiled locomotive.P.R.30.12.13
Photos: Vivica Genaux (Angelina); Vivica Genaux (Angelina) and Dmitry Korchak (Don Ramiro); Juliette Mars (Tisbe) and Sylvia Schwartz (Clorinda); Ildebrando D’Arcangelo (Alidoro)
(c) Wiener Staatsoper/ Michael Poehn

Beethoven’s Fidelio

In the plot of Beethoven’s Fidelio, Don Pizzaro, governor of a state jail, holds Florestan secretly imprisoned on political grounds. Sounds familiar? Redolent of political oppression from time immemorial? Never more so than in the 21st century. So why must it be located historically, in the early 19th century? Otto Schenk’s traditional production for Vienna State Opera has bare mud-grey walls, is sparsely furnished for head jailor Rocco’s house. Florestan’s wife Leonore has disguised herself as a man named Fidelio, hoping as the jailor’s assistant to reach Florestan. But Rocco’s daughter Marzelline- rejecting Jaquino’s attempts to woo her in the first scene- has fallen in love with Fidelio. (The gender implications, one of ‘the strange history of transvestite heroines’, are another matter.) This over-complicated plot is testing -except for seasoned opera fans. The dull staging doesn’t help, but it’s Beethoven, his only opera, so there are musical compensations!
Marzelline, Rocco’s daughter, is beautifully sung by a blonde Ildiko Raimondi. Beaming with love, in her first aria, Kommt Fidelio im Haus alles verändert, she sings how Fidelio has changed everything. Matti Salminen, seasoned Finnish bass is impressive as the approving father. Fidelio (soprano Ricarda Merbeth, former member of Vienna State Opera ensemble) sings of her mission, ‘Wie gross die Gefahr, wie schwach die Hoffnung’ , however great the danger, however feint the hope . As Fidelio /Leonore Merbeth, with straight black hair, seems a little fulsome. (A frockcoat doesn’t disguise the bust.) The trio gloriously affirm the Power of Love.
Rocco tells of the prisoner whose meagre rations have been reduced. Florestan has no light, no straw , nothing.
The Minister Don Fernando has heard of Pizzaro’s abuse of power. Pizzaro’s solution is now to murder Florestan. But first jailor Rocco must dig a grave in Florestan’s cell. A trumpet call will warn Pizzaro of the arrival of Don Fernando. Pizzaro (Tomasz Konieczny) enters, delivers his aria , Der Sieg ist mein (the victory is mine.) Konieczny is slim, hirsute, blonde, cropped beard: with modish close-fitting coat, scarf, and boots, much too attractive for the villain of the piece! The voice, a dramatic bass-baritone, is formidably authorative, however.
Merbeth in Fidelio’s aria Komm Hoffnung. Die Liebe wird’s erreichen (Love will reach it!) is a high point. Observing Pizzaro’s rage, more determined to succeed, she will penetrate the hidden place where her enchained lover is hidden. Her faith in love and freedom drives her on; her inner compulsion will not falter.
An incredible moment when the prisoners emerge, from the sides of the stage into the light -as if blinded. ‘Oh what joy to breathe in the open air. Their life as prisoners is a tomb. Oh, heavenly rescue! But their happiness –Was ein Gluck!‘- is counterpointed by other voices, knowing they are being watched and listened to. ‘Wir sind belauscht.’ We see guards patrolling on the stage’s overhead bridge. (Another resonnance for 21st century audiences, surely.)
Florestan has so far not been seen: that man who Rocco has been ordered to give less and less to eat. In Act 2, Florestan’s cell, we see Florestan (Peter Seiffert) kept like an animal on a chain- at first lying flat on the ground. ‘Gott! welch’ Dunkel hier!’, sings Peter Seiffert, a great Wagner helden tenor –Tanhauser, Tristan recently in Vienna- and an actor tremendous to watch. ‘What a test! But God’s will is just. The measure of suffering is up to him.’ And, poignantly, the springtime of life’s happiness has deserted him. He dared to speak the truth. Chains are his reward. But his consolation is his duty is done. (Meine Pflicht ist getan.)
But now he feels a gentle breeze…he senses his wife Leonore (Fidelio) will lead him to freedom. Seiffert seems to collapse. He lies again flat, prostrate. (No clapping. No time to applaud.)
Fidelio sings she will loosen his chains, bring him freedom, whoever you are. Florestan wakens. ‘Mercy, give me one drop of water’, Seiffert such a great actor. Fidelio offers him wine and bread – the bread she’s been saving for Florestan – although she can’t quite recognise his features. Florestan can’t repay ‘his’ good dead. He’s moved seeing the young man there, not realising who it is. ‘ It will be all over for him in a day or so.’ In Beethoven’s great trio -Florestan , Rocco, and Fidelio- each sing their separate lines in contrapunct. Florestan, repeats ‘O dass ich eux nicht lohnen kann ‘, if only I could repay you ; Fidelio and Rocco, ‘It’s more than I can bear’, ‘his life will soon be at an end.’
Pizzaro enters, gloats over his victim’s powerlessness. As Pizzaro is about to stab Florestan, Fidelio intervenes against his Mörderlust (bloodthirst)- steps between them. ‘First kill his wife!’ Fidelio draws a pistol, and reveals his identity. ‘What pluck! Shall he, Pizzaro, tremble before a woman?’
Now the trumpet call, signalling the arrival Minister Don Fernando, Beethoven’s trumpet surely one of the iconic moments in all music, sending a call to freedom, an end to tyranny. Du bist gerettet, saved by almighty God. ‘The hour of vengeance strikes. Love in league with courage will save you!’
O, namenlose Freude! After this suffering, this is beyond joy! (There are strains of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy movement.) Alone Leonore and Florestan thank God for their deliverance. The duet between Florestan and Leonore is marvelously sung and played, Seiffert and Merbeth reminding one of great theatrical reunions (King Lear and Cordelia?). ‘To hold her husband to her breast’, sings Merbeth poignantly.
There follows a long orchestral interlude, the most sublime of Beethoven’s orchestral overtures, Leonore (no. 3). But – blasphemy- isn’t this excessively long, so as to interrupt the dramatic momentum on stage? This is an opera. (The supremacy of libretto over music was argued by Gluck in his 1760s manifesto.) Or is Beethoven having the last word in the debate, proclaiming music over text? The audience applauded as if it were the end of the opera, a triumph for conductor and music director Franz-Welser Möst and his Vienna State Opera Orchestra.
Notwithstanding, the stage opened out- now brilliantly lit from the screen at the back- is flooded by the wives coupling with their male prisoners. Heil sei den Tag, the day long yearned for! Don Fernando (bass-baritone Boaz Daniel) sings, representing the best of Kings: their enlightened ruler, grants a general amnesty: ‘A brother seeks his brother and will help whom he hears.’ Fernando recognises the prisoner kneeling as his friend Florestan. (Fingers point at Pizzaro demanding his punishment.) It is only appropriate that Fidelio, now Leonore, should release his chains, set him free.
Oh Gott, welch ein Augenblick, what a moment. Inexplicably, you try us but never desert us. It says something of Beethoven’s optimism and faith in mankind that the opera should end on a positive note. Not tragically, or in dramatic ambiguity. The knife of Pizzaro was staived.
Retten des Gattanten; the married couple are saved. Seiffert, overcome with joy, bemused, blinking in the daylight, the glow of happiness. He shakes his head in astonishment.They, Seiffert and Merbeth , passionately embracing, look like young lovers experiencing love for the first time. Led by Florestan, the Chorus of released prisoners and the people join in a hymn of praise to the noble woman who saved her husband.
The Fidelio narrative is too relevant to be historicised . (‘Amnesty’ cheekily handed out flyers superimposing over the Fidelio program cover an appeal to free political prisoners.) Vienna State Opera’s classic (Schenk) stage design still appeals, but I’d like to see Fidelio updated, cutting-edge, to the 20th/21st century. P.R. 30.12.2013
Photos: Tomasz Konieczny (Don Pizzaro); Peter Seiffert (Florestan); Tomasz Konieczny (Don Pizzaro) ; Peter Seiffert (Florestan) ; Boaz Daniel (Don Fernando)
Featured Image: Ildiko Raimondi (Marzelline); Matti Salminen (Rocco); Ricarda Merbeth (Fidelio/Leonore)
(c) Wiener Staatsoper /Michael Poehn

Britten’s Peter Grimes

An opera sung in English at Vienna State Opera! Such is the international standing and acceptance of Benjamin Britten’s operas, Britten’s Peter Grimes, amongst others, is part of Vienna State Opera’s repertory, and how fitting to stage it 23rd November to commemorate the centenary of his birth (1913).
I can still remember Welsh National Opera’s classic 1990’s Peter Grimes (produced by Peter Stein) colourfully depicting a late 19th Century (1870s) English Suffolk fishing village. Stein decided a certain realism is necessary, starting with the costumes, even including three authentic boats on stage.
Christine Mielitz’s (21st Century) production has the court seated facing us. Grimes’ boy died at sea. Herbert Lippert’s Grimes at first seems too old; white-haired, receding, portly, in a grey jacket and waistcoat. ( He’s meant to marry Ellen.) The judge calls him ‘callous’, ‘brutal’- he’s told to get a fisherman big enough to stand up for himself.
But Grimes the outsider ‘sees and feels what others don’t see.’ He is a visionary, near to madness, who speaks poetically : ‘The dead are witnesses and fate is blind.’ Gottfried Pilz’s minimalist set is high-tech, defined by green neon strips, with a sphere, like a porthole, suspended.
But where’s the sense of the sea- the material inspiration for Britten’s fishing village? In the next scene a storm is breaking. Backstage there are lines of people who appear to be rowing; small boys playing (on deck?) with bars of soap; front stage four reading newspapers in armchairs. In the pub that evening, people coming out of the storm sing of ‘thieving waves which take us in our sleep’. But there’s no real sense of foreboding. ‘We’ve got a ‘prentice for you, Grimes, but there’s no room on the fully- loaded cart’ (a workhouse boy, this is the 19th century). Ellen, the schoolteacher, offers to mind the boy, soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin has beautiful articulation.
In a farcical sequence, the men hold up bright yellow chairs, as if to fend off ‘a high tide no breakwater can stand’ that’s coming to ‘eat the land’. Behind them others are holding suitcases (a sea wall, breakwater?). Grimes and Captain Balstrode (Iain Paterson) are pulling on a rope centre stage. Grimes complains of being offered apprentices ‘workhouse starved’.
Grimes has a vision of marrying Ellen, taking in the apprentice: he’ll show them by setting up shop. In his aria tenor Lippert sings of a harbour where there’ll be no quarrels. (Rather effectively, Grimes stands at the vortex of neon light strips.) Britten’s Sea Interlude is well played before the quarrel, an orgaistic scene, at the Boar, the pub dominated by gaming machines. ‘We live and let live and keep our hands to ourselves’ (pub conversation). Black lurex strips curtain off the backstage, like a bordello. Meanwhile Grimes sings of ‘breathing solemnity in that great night.’ So the general debauchery of ‘the Borough’ is contrasted to Grimes’ poetic ramblings: the Holy Fool. ‘He’s mad or drunk’: or the outbursts of a psychotic? Behind him they’re cavorting in bright red outfits, boogying as if at a revivalist meeting. Ridiculous.
If it fails to evoke the Suffolk fishing setting, what is Mielitz trying to do? A psychological concept, perhaps – a society as trial and jury, Grimes and outsiders the object of surveillance.
It gets worse. Act 2, Ellen is with Grimes’ new apprentice. There’s a gold covering to the stage (representing a beach), with a Church choir backstage. The boy, with a racket, is playing tennis ! ‘Man alone has a soul to save and goes to church on Sundays’, sings Ellen. So why before this Victorian Church is the boy playing sport? The boy reveals his bruises to Ellen- he’s all black under his shirt- which makes his tennis serves even more absurd. Grimes arrives. He’s seen a shoal, needs help. ‘He works for me: leave him alone, he’s mine.’
This Grimes, Lippert, is too introverted, hasn’t got that wild streak. The man Grimes is unable to control his temper. So impatient, lost in visions, he loses it with the boy. Lippert is too gentle to be credible as this unpredictable loose cannon. But it’s beautifully sung, with elegant diction. Grimes hits Ellen, knocks her to the ground (for reproaching him for ill-treating the boy.) ‘Grimes is at his exercise. You can see it from his eyes,’ (sing Chorus), a constant refrain, suggesting the manic.
‘Fishing’s a lonely experience’. Grimes is an outsider. He’s targeted. ‘When the Borough gossips, someone will suffer.’ The Borough keeps its standards up’. The Church worshippers are all in black, when summoned to Grimes’ hut, like a Salem witch hunt:’Now is gossip put on trial.’
Grimes orders the boy to ‘Go there! Now’s the chance: the whole sea’s boiling.’ Hearing the approaching neighbours, Grimes flings out the fishing gear, sends the boy down the cliff face to ‘find that shoal’: the boy slips to his death.
In a disjointed aria Grimes dreams he’s married Ellen, built himself a home: no more fears and no more storms. She ‘will be wrapped around in tenderness, like a purple haze.’Then a nightmare, haunted by visions of his previous apprentice, ‘Stop moaning boy, there’s no more water’. Fine singing from Lippert.
Act 3 concerns the disappearance of Grimes and his apprentice, the jumper Ellen knitted for him found washed up, the Mayor’s posse of the locals to arrest Grimes… But in this chaotic production, in the opening, the Mayor, is having fun with two women. The whole concept is like a Berg 1920s modernist opera- not one of Britten’s Romantic notion. The ‘Good night Dr.Crabbe’ sequence ‘Tonight’ is a dance sequence out of a (Sondheim?) musical.
However, Barkin in Ellen’s aria sings poignantly of how she was brooding on the fantasies of children; only by wishing can she bring some silk into their lives. Britten is pre-occupied with the transition from childhood to adulthood.
The Act 3 sets are metallic, black with gold, high modernism; the backdrop is a New York skyline. In Mielitz’s concept, there’s a Hollywood ball sequence- white deejays and gowns.Then the whole lot are brandishing shot guns-or what. Back in Britten’s opera, Peter Grimes is found by Ellen and Balstrode, hungry, wet and almost insane. Balstrode’s proposed way out is for Grimes to scuttle his boat and sink with it . Grimes’ last aria, his mind disintigrating, sings ‘Deep in calm water, you are near home…Old Joe’s gone fishing.’ He’s raving. Beautifully sung by Lippert, but there’s little menace, or sense of pathos.
Britten’s opera ends with dawn breaking; the Borough come to life to rumours of a boat sinking. The beginning of another day, the Borough is going about its business. The music, Britten’s prologue, is sublime, it should be profoundly moving.
Mielitz’s thoroughly modern design concept is an ego trip too far. Musically this production certainly passes muster, not an ideal cast, but uniformly well sung, Vienna State Opera orchestra perhaps over-driven by Graeme Jenkins, sounding brutally modernist at times.
Mielitz should be sent to the Suffolk coast, to board a fishing boat (if there are any) and preferably, apprenticed to a Mr. Grimes. The shame is that it’s a travesty: doesn’t do justice to Britten’s opera, a masterpiece. There is no sense of wonderment of nature, the power of the sea to drive a man out of his mind. PR. 23.11.2013
Photos: Iain Paterson (Captain Balstrode) and Herbert Lippert (Peter Grimes); Gun-Brit Barkmin (Ellen Orford) ; Herbert Lippert (Grimes)
(c) Wiener Staatsoper/ Michael Poehn

Puccini’s Madama Butterfly

Puccini’s Madama Butterfly premiered in 1904, its appeal undiminished. Is it the the exoticism, the authentic detail stemming from Puccini’s interest in Japan: or the tragic love story inspiring Puccini’s ravishing music? Madama Butterfly is as relevant now as a parable of imperialism, Cio-Cio-San the victim of Lieutenant Pinkerton of the US Navy. (He rents a house, marries his temporary wife in Japan- against the advice of her maid, Japanese house owner, and US Consul.) The tragedy is Cio-Cio-San’s, who, in her innocent trust, sacrifices everything for Pinkerton, even converts to his religion.
It is surely a tale of sex-tourism , with the westerner – wishful thinking, sincere- exploiting the good faith of his hosts, with Cio-Cio-San duped into marrying him. Meanwwhile with the US Consul, Pinkerton drinks to America, his home ties and an American wife.
At Vienna State Opera, Pinkerton, sung by a very Italian looking Neil Shicoff, (youthfully black hair, moustachioed) boasts to Sharpless, the US Consul (Gabriel Bermudez): Everywhere in the world, the roaming Yankee gets his money’s worth. He, the American sailor, drops anchor until a storm ravages the ship. But this ‘easy-going greed’ saddens him. Puccini’s aria, infused with strains of the stars- and-stripes, is adequately sung by an unrecognisably off-form Shicoff, his tenor lustreless, his range lacking. When his bride to be, Cio-Cio-San , is ready ‘like a garland of flowers’, Pinkerton admits to Sharpless- ‘I don’t know if it is love or a passing fancy.’ Introducing the butterfly trope, Pinkerton sings ‘She is like a butterfly. He only has to catch her even if it breaks her wings’- an ominous statement of his power over her. (Shicoff, not inspiring, makes hard work of it.) When he raises a toast it’s to marriage to ‘a real American girl’.
For the wedding Cio-Cio-San appears in white silk heading the Geisha girls.(The gowns are authentic kimonos.) Ana Maria Martinez’s voice, a light soprano, endears her in its fragility, sings before she crosses the bridge she must turn back and look at the things dear to her. The bridge is also symbolic -apart from the customary marriage crossing to her husband- in cultural terms. Marrying Pinkerton, she’s ‘burning her bridges’, cutting off her family.
Cio-Cio-San, ‘Butterfly’, sings of how she had to make her life as a geisha, of hard times :’The storm breaks even the strongest pines.’ Her mother, a noble lady, is now poor. And it’s revealed Butterfly is only 15 -years- old (carrying other implications). The other girls sing, he (Pinkerton) is ‘as handsome as a dream: he’ll divorce her.’
Butterfly shows Pinkerton her make up box; something sacred, a present from the Mikado to her father; and the dolls, the souls of her ancestors. But -to underline her sacrifice, her alienation from her roots- sings how she went secretly to the Mission, to adapt to the new religion. ‘Her uncle (a Buddhist Priest) knows nothing: she will follow his (Pinkerton’s) God. ‘For you I am prepared to forget my own religion, my nearest and dearest.’
Yet Pinkerton is insensitive, after the ceremony sings arrogantly, ‘Now I am a family , let’s get rid of these people.’ (She’s his legally to have.) Her Uncle Bonze arrives- he will spoil the celebrations, they murmur- reproaches her, she was seen at the Mission: ‘Your soul is lost.’ Disrespectfully to a Priest, Pinkerton tells him to get out -will not tolerate shouting in his house.
In the opening of their extended duet, he sings to her ‘Don’t cry little girl, your relatives aren’t worth it!’ Beneath Puccini’s rapturous music -one of the great love duets in opera- there’s a seduction scene. She sings, his words touch her heart: they repeatedly, the refrain Viene la sera (evening is coming). They’re swept along irreversibly. The bride is dressed in white. He’s transported by a sudden desire: Dear child with wonderful eyes, you are all mine.
For her, he’s the star of her firmament. (But she’s barely a girl, infatuated with the experienced older man.) She’s sitting on her knees before him (Shicoff sitting on the well side stage.) ‘They say in your country butterflies are pinned to a board.’ He replies, so they will no longer escape. Again ‘The night is for love’, she sings his refrain, ‘Do not be afraid, be mine!’
Act 2 in Butterfly’s house – Tsugouharu Foujita’s set authentically designed- witnesses the consequences of her abandonment. Yet her trust for him is unflinching. ‘Japanese girls are lazy’, she sings, convincing herself of the superiority of the American God , and way of life. She gives Suzuki (Alisa Kolosova) her last ; they’ve been spending too much. (Why didn’t Pinkerton provide for his wife?) For Pinkerton, the house is an investment. But she asks, why did he have the house filled with locks? ‘He wants to keep trouble outside’ she sings.
Suzuki repeatedly reminds her of the harsh realities: no foreign husband has ever returned. And is rebuked. (‘He promised to return when the robins are building their nests.’)
Ana Martinez is appealing, though her soprano lacks real power- charming as should be. ‘My little wife’, he’ll call her- the aria (un bel di) doesn’t quite sweep you away, Martinez underpowered against the orchestral climaxes, Vienna State Opera Orchestra inspired by no less than Placido Domingo on conductor’s rostrum.
The visit from the Consul, bearing Pinkerton’s letter is crucial, a testimony of Pinkerton’s real intent. ‘My friend’, Sharpless reads to her, ‘will you visit the pretty widow… And if she still loves me prepare her.’ At this point Sharpless falters, unable to continue- very movingly rendered by Gabriel Bermudez. What would she do if he never comes back? She’d delight people with her singing. Then, ‘I thought I would die: has he forgotten me?’ She shows him her son. ‘Have you ever seen a child in Japan with blue eyes?’ (What happens to such children , we wonder, alienated, they belong in neither culture.) Butterfly wanted to call Pinkerton for help, is even prepared to beg to provide for him. Visibly shaken- Bermudez a sympathetic figure in a sobre black suit- -‘His father (Pinkerton ) will hear of this, I promise you!’ (Sharpless witholds news of Pinkerton’s American marriage. So Butterfly rejects Japanese suitors, decorates her house sure of Pinkerton’s return.) Exquisitely scored , Act II is characterised by wistful melancholy, one of waiting , frustration. But Martinez as Butterfly doesn’t have, for me, an interesting enough voice to carry this long Act. She’s pleasant, but lacking at crucial moments.
The ship sighted, Pinkerton finally arrives. In his meeting with Sharpless, he appears callous . ‘She will realise the truth better if she comes face to face with it.’ He was warned, insists Sharpless. The Consul had told him to be careful, but he wouldn’t listen. ‘She believed you.’ Now Pinkerton is filled with remorse, sees the mistake he made which, he sings, will torment him forever (will never forget his blossom).
Mrs Pinkerton appears, (Simina Ivan) tall, blonde, elegant in a striking hat, fin-de-siecle costume. ‘That woman- what does she want of me?- is like a blow to her heart. But Pinkerton, insists, she is not to blame for her suffering. And withdraws.
Sharpless introduces Pinkerton’s wife: Pinkerton will never return. The confrontation between American wife- albeit gentle, sympathetic- and the manipulated Butterfly is shocking. And Pinkerton’s belated remorse is not quite convincing (Shicoff’s tenor surprisingly lacking in ballast.)
‘Unhappy mother to give up her son!’ Butterfly is dignified, calm. Honour demands her ritual suicide. The tragic denoument -Butterfly’s impassioned farewell (O a me, sceso dal trano) -cannot fail to move. For all the sumptuous high-romanticism of Puccini’s score, we should never forget -beneath the decorative gloss- the tawdry story of a woman’s exploitation. P.R. 19.11.2013
Photos: Ana Maria Martinez (Cio-Cio-San); Neil Shicoff (Pinkerton) and Ana Maria Martinez (Cio-Cio-San); Ana Maria Martinez and Alisa Kolosova (Suzuki)
(c) Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Poehn

Verdi 200: Verdi’s A Masked Ball (Un Ballo in Maschera)

Cream moiré satin curtains invite us in as Vienna State Opera orchestra’s plucked strings and flutes open Verdi’s magisterial overture. But the proscenium arch within is only an antiquated stage set. The red drapes and stucco laurel garlands, as are the pillars in a brown green roccoco style, are obviously painted. Stale! This is the 83rd performance in this staging (Emanuele Luzzat), in Giannfranco de Bosio’s production. Time for a change.
Fortunately, this cast, mostly new to me, are very good, Vienna State Opera Orchestra, and especially Chorus, excel under veteran Verdian conductor Jésus López-Cobos.
Swedish King Gustaf III, in his opening aria, sings power is only good if it seeks virtue in glory. Yet, immediately, he’s thinking of Amelia ‘and forgets all else.’ Gustaf sings of his love for her, she, his best friend’s wife.
Kamen Chanev (short black hair, rather boyish features) has a superb, sonorous tenor. The Chorus background -perhaps ironically- chant ‘he thinks of nothing but our good.’
In his first scene with Ankarström (George Petean), Gustaf is warned he isn’t safe there. The King sings of his duty: the love of his people protects him, and God is on his side. Ankarström (Petean a fine baritone) emphasises the lives of thousands depend on him. Will the love of his people always protect him? Hate is more vigilant than love. Here, Verdi underlines Ankarström’s loyalty, thus making Gustaf’s secret betrayal -he’s in love with Ankaström’s wife- more dramatically problematic. Petean -older looking, portly, sleeked black hair, goatee beard- effortlessly sustains impressive high notes.
We hear of the fortune teller Ulrica who the King saves from banishment. ‘She tells beautiful ladies their fortune, but is in league with Lucifer’-according to the page boy Oscar (Hila Fahima) a high- pitched soprano. But the King will go in disguise.
To strident chords, stabbing cellos, Monica Bohinek’s Ulrica, witch-like, has long black tressled hair. It’s the same dull set, now with a decorative oven and cauldron. Bohinec’s mezzo has what it takes vocally, but in black lace, gypsy shrouds, so melodramatic! Is this the fault of Verdi’s neo-gothic scene? (To a ‘long live the sorceress’, she disappears in a cloud of smoke.) But in her aria ‘Where pale moonlight falls …where criminals breathe their last’, explaining where Amelia’s to find the herb she prescribes, Bohinec is lyrical, sings tenderly.
Amelia seeks a remedy for her dilemma, her love for Gustaf the King. Amelia’s plea ‘purify my heart and find peace’ is sung with ardour and feeling by Sondra Radvanovsky- overheard by the King in disguise. The trio of Gustaf left, Ulrica, and Amelia right stage is a wonderful Verdian moment.
In the publically staged fortune telling, The King , in sailor’s disguise, seeks to know ‘whether the sea and my beloved are true to me’. This is a dream role for a tenor, and Chanev, glorious, over-confident- but Ulrica knows bold words will end in tears- is a virtuoso display of the tenor’s art. ‘Know you will die by the hand of a friend. Thus it is written’, sings Ulrica, but Gustaf treats it as a joke, and bounces around mockingly. ‘And the first to shake his hand today’ is the hand of his most trusted Ankarström. But against a terrific Verdian chorus affirming their King- the voices of the conspirators, their time will come- Gustaf will defy his fate.
Un Ballo in Maschera is classic Verdi with a surfeit of big moments. And the music is ravishing. Such as Amelia’s aria ‘This terrible place has both crime and death’ (at the executioner’s ground). ‘Though I may die here, I must do it.’ Radvanovsky, who’s previously sung Amelia here, is excellent, powerful in her wavering. ‘But what if the herb erases his image from my heart?’ The aria sung to a plaintive oboe, Sondra kneeling, was well applauded.
Then the duet with Gustaf, where Amelia sings to him, she must end the torment. But he pleads, does she know that his heart, ever in pain, will cease altogether. How many sleepless nights he’s prayed she would hear him. She- Heaven help me. Go! Say no more! But Gustaf persists, he would give his life for a single word… And she demures.’Yes! I love you! Protect me from my heart.’ Kamen Chanev responds with a heavenly cry, a sustained top note, ‘You love me! Nothing remains but love.’ She’d rather die than never be his. Amelia, do you love me? Yes! These two are resplendent.
Ankarström arrives, ironically to protect the King from the plotters. Amelia, far stage, is disguised in a veil. Veils are inrinsic and instrumental to the plot, however curious that may now seem to us. (While the King escapes in Ankarström’s cloak, Ankarström offers to lead the mystery lady to safety, the two silent, looking askance.)
End of Act II, Chorus and ensemble are masterly, typical of late Verdi. Chorus sing mockingly, Ankarström is having a secret assignation with his wife. (Amelia sings, the man I adore has dishonoured me.) The mocking Chorus, reminiscent of Falstaff (Chimes at Midnight), chant ‘the tragedy has turned into a comedy that will amuse the city’.
In the complex Act 3, Ankarström threatens to kill Amelia, who begs that she see her child for the last time. In her aria, that her son should close the eyes of the mother, Radvanovsky intensely moving, soars to the highest notes. But she’s also pleading for clemency. Ankarström, surely moved, pities her tragic plight, decides another’s blood must play. Petean’s baritone impresses in another terrific aria. It was he who destroyed his happiness! This is no way to reward the loyalty of a friend. A flute accompaniment leads into a lament of the bliss no longer his with Amelia in his arms. It is all past. Ankarström joins in a pact with the conspirators, their rousing march ‘Revenge, Unite!’ reminiscent of Don Carlo and Rodrigo’s oath. (Amelia appears opportunely as the conspirators are drawing lots to assassinate the King.)
Now a screen depicts the interior of the palace. Gustaf resolves to give up Amelia, and to send her and Ankarström to their homeland. Chanev, with his beautifully rich tenor -but eschewing vibrato and false emotion- sings that he has signed his own sacrifice.(Does he have to do it all! Verdi’s familiar unenviable sovereign.) But forced to leave her he will never forget her. Indefatigably, he’ll go to the ball anyway. He’ll see Amelia for the last time and his love will be kindled by her beauty. Sung by Chanev with consummate prowess, thrilling!
The masked ball: the curtain rises on the cleverly painted sets, the trompe l’oeil galleries, leading into a recessed ballroom area. But the costumes are for real: splendid, spectacularly colourful. The black-cassocked Gustaf confers in earnest with a masked Amelia. We see his black-clad figure, with a blood-red patch, falling. Verdi’s strings parody the ball’s minuet theme background. Gustaf dying, forgives Ankarström, admits he loved his wife, but didn’t violate her honour. Ironically, tomorrow she was to leave. The Chorus, no longer ironic, sing ‘God save his noble heart.’ And what a rousing Verdi chorus- Oh! night of terror!-Vienna State Opera’s forces inspired under Jésus López-Cobos. P.R. 13.O9.2013
Photos: Monica Bohinec (Ulrica); Sondra Radvanovsky (Amelia);
Featured image: Monica Bohinec and Mihail Dogotari (Christian)
(c) Wiener Staatsoper/ Michael Poehn